What is a format in accessible information?

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I’ve been compiling a checklist for components of accessible information, to make sure nothing’s missed out when we’re creating or adapting information. But I became unstuck at ‘formats’, and realised I didn’t understand the word format in accessible information. So I needed to find out more.

The accessible information checklist

The checklist is inspired by my blog ‘What is accessible information?’ and is called the Accessible Information Ladder, as components build on each other for full accessibility.

What is a format?

In my blog defining ‘accessible information’, I’ve defined an ‘accessible format’ as

‘How the content is delivered – eg spoken, printed, signing, Braille, illustrations, compatible with the reader’s preferences, culture, and cognitive and sensory abilities.’

Since then, NHS England have published the Accessible Information Standard for health and social care.

Before I look at how the Accessible Information Standard defines formats, I’ll look at dictionary definitions.

What the dictionaries say

A quick resume of online definitions suggests a format is:

  • the physical appearance of a publication eg typeface, margins, spacing, punctuation
  • how a publication eg a leaflet, TV or radio program, is organised, designed, set out or presented
  • computer data storage

The Accessible Information Standard definition

The Accessible Information Standard defines ‘accessible format’ as ‘information provided in an alternative to standard printed or handwritten English, for example large print, braille or email.’

The definition gives examples of standard printed English, handwritten English, large print, Braille and email as accessible formats.

The definition does not explicitly define what a format is, but seems to include two of the dictionary definitions; one is how the information is presented, eg Braille, large print, and the other is computer storage, e mail. So we can type in ‘large print’ (definition 1) in email (definition 2).

A Public Relations view

How do other communication fields define ‘formats’? In the book ‘Planning and Managing Public Relations Campaigns‘, (2010, pg 115), Anne Gregory describes formats as how the ‘message’ is ‘put across’. This includes physical appearance, appropriate words, typeface and choice of images.

Two meanings

So there seem to be two main ways ‘format’ is used. One is the physical appearance, and the other is how it is stored digitally.

Accessible information formats

To define the components of accessible information, I wanted to think carefully about what terms actually meant, and to break down the terms further if I felt it helped differentiation between concepts. My thinking is, if we understand components logically and systematically, we can adapt information more systematically.

Elsewhere in the Accessible Information Standard further examples of ‘formats’ include plain text, HTML, PDFs, British Sign Language, video, Easy Read and audio (on CD or as an MP3 file), Braille and Moon (similar to Braille).

Digital formats

To get a clearer idea of what a format is in accessible information, I listed the formats mentioned in the Accessible Information Standard, to try and find ways of grouping them. One type was easier to define as they were methods to transmit or store information digitally. These are e mail, HTML, PDFs, video and audio (on CD or as an MP3 file).  So I’ll call these ‘digital formats’.

Other accessible information formats

The other group was harder to define collectively. These are: plain text, British Sign Language, Easy Read, Braille, Moon, printed writing, handwritten writing, large print and Braille. Here are my thoughts on what these terms are:

  • Plain text is a way of presenting writing in a computer file. So it’s a type of presentation, stored in a digital format. The medium is digital.
  • Printed and handwritten writing is writing on paper, by a person or machine. Writing is a symbolic system, it represents language. The medium is paper.
  • Large print is adapting the presentation of the writing, usually done by formatting on a PC. Large print can be on a PC or paper. It’s a way to present information.
  • Braille and Moon are systems (I think, please put me right if I get this wrong). Raised dots are used to symbolise language, like written words. So Braille is a symbolic system, and it is produced on paper, or other mediums, like stone. I wouldn’t call stone a format, and I can’t personally understand Braille. So I think it’s a symbolic system.
  • Makaton is a similar system that uses signs or symbols. Signs are a medium, symbols require a medium of print.
  • British Sign Language is a language, or symbolic system, expressed through the medium of signing. The difference between BSL and Makaton is that BSL signs represent a language, Makaton signs and symbols represent single words (they can be grouped, but only key words are represented).
  • Easy Read is 2 things (I think). It is a method to adapt information (including a writing style), and it is a way information is presented (eg an ‘Easy Read’ leaflet). It can be presented using paper, or plain text on a screen, or using the spoken word on audio or video. So Easy Read is a method and a form of presentation, and the paper or digital format is the medium.

New definitions

I’ve not found it easy to classify all these types of communication, because they are so varied and overlapping. I have found that ‘accessible format’ is a phrase that we must use with care, as it generally seems to mean ‘different ways of doing things, to make information accessible’.

Because ‘format’ is a homonym (it has different meanings), I was tempted to remove it from the Accessible Information Ladder. But it’s generality came to my rescue – I realised my use of the component ‘document design’ was too specific, focused on traditional printed material, rather than the a wider range of digital media, including video and audio.

So the word ‘format’ is back on board, redefined as ‘how information is presented and stored’. I have also introduced the new component of ‘Sensory and symbolic systems’.

What’s your definition?

Words will always mean different things to different people – which is why adapting information is so challenging. If your understanding of ‘format’ just doesn’t fit within the Accessible Information Ladder, please join me on Twitter @Inklecomms #accessibleinfo #makingsense, or contact me here.


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